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A little light grilling

Gavin Hewitt | 09:39 UK time, Monday, 11 January 2010

Catherine Ashton, commissioner-designateA democracy moment in Europe today. The European Union begins the closest it gets to US-style confirmation hearings. Over the next seven days all 26 proposed European commissioners face a three-hour grilling from members of the European Parliament. They will be tested on their plans, their views and their knowledge of their portfolios.

The President of the Parliament, Jerzy Buzek, has promised "there will be no free rides". The MEPs have acquired new powers under the Lisbon Treaty and will be keen to flex their muscles. Both sides have been prepping for the appearances. The President of the Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, has had all the commissioners in for training sessions, encouraging them, advising them.

Early attention will focus on the British commissioner, Catherine Ashton. She is to be Europe's new foreign policy chief, called the High Representative. There are all kinds of hints that she's in for a "rough ride" and a "torrid time". Perhaps. Certainly there will be questions designed to reveal her inexperience in foreign affairs. She has never held elected office and was trade commissioner for only a year.

I expect that the questions will probe her plans for Europe's new diplomatic service, its cost and how it will be set up. Above all, she will have to answer how all of this will give Europe a stronger and more coherent voice in the world. MEPs are unlikely to draw blood, however. Last time she was questioned she was cautious but emerged as competent, with flashes of charm.

These hearings are a curious process. The MEPs can embarrass and raise objections to individual commissioners so that they are forced to stand down, but on 26 January they vote on the new Commission as a whole. Sometimes there are trade-offs. Power within the European Parliament is divided between groupings. If the socialists feel they are losing one of "their" commissioners, for instance, they could turn on someone favoured by the centre-right.

For these few days individuals who will hold considerable power within Europe will be held to account in public.

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